Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

V. Stephen Parrish, A Story of the Psalms: Conversation, Canon, and Congregation (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003). Pp. 168. Paper. $ 14.95. ISBN: 0-8146-2906-7

V. Stephen Parrish presents us with a novel study of the Psalter in which he asserts that the “…Book of Psalms narrates a story of Israel…” that “…closely parallels the Church’s story…” (143). Parrish's proposed critical format ranges from form-critical to redaction-critical to synchronic evaluations (vii-viii and passim). He attempts to evaluate the Psalter’s structure according to its canonical state, to demonstrate how this “final-form” details a “story” that is being told in chapters 1-150 (as Parrish states, “…major moments of Israel’s story…” [20]), and then suggests how that “story” might hold meaning for the modern Church congregation.

The first chapter introduces the author’s intentions, and chapters 2-5 are divided according to the paradigm he sees at work in the Psalter (that is, “emergence,” “establishment,” “collapse,” “reemergence”). Parrish follows the standard scholarly opinion regarding the five-fold division of the Psalter, and, proceeding systematically through the books, each chapter begins with his assessment of selected Psalms followed by sub-sections entitled “Preliminary Observations,” “Canon and Congregation,” and “Summary.”

This work is intended exclusively for a Christian audience, and the term “congregation” is used rather loosely to describe both the ancient Israelite community and a modern Protestant one (compare 42-47 with 71). While Parrish hints at the broader issue of ecclesiastic harmony with statements such as “[t]he special claims of faith, denomination, or sect suddenly stand challenged by the overarching admission that everything that moves and breathes belongs to God,” (129) such an appeal is neither set in terms that might be acceptable within Catholic or Orthodox religious contexts nor sustained with the amount of rigor necessary to justify it. That assertion notwithstanding, Parrish’s plan is not to syncopate varying Christian traditions, but to offer an evaluation of the Psalter that applies the paradigm of Israel’s relationship with God to the modern Church context.

I have some fundamental objections to Parrish’s thesis, its execution, and his derived conclusions. First, more care is needed in defining several terms. For instance, he states that his study is “synchronic” (cf. viii and 143) but much of his application for the Church is diachronic. For instance, he states: “The conversation (of the Psalms) is deeply focused upon the experiential moment from which the psalmists speak, but it draws from the past and looks to the future” (13—my parenthesis and italics). His reliance on the diachronic continues with his statement that a congregation’s ability “…to embrace this dynamism means to remain open to the ‘yes, but…’ character of canon, and to remain flexible in the event of ecological change” (45) and his suggestion that “…all theology is ultimately and inevitably contextual…” (91). These are diachronic statements, whereas synchronism is defined by its detachment from history, resisting especially the schismatic symptoms of historical-criticism (cf. Jon Levenson, Hebrew Bible, Old Testament and Historical Criticism, 71-76). Parrish’s use of “synchronic” reflects the perspective of a modern Church congregation in which the unity and divine authority of the Hebrew Scriptures is understood in relationship to the sensibilities of the contemporary culture (North American). How else could Parrish juxtapose his selection of modern “voices” (i.e., of the “laity,” “women,” “victims”) with the “voices” of lament in book three of the Psalms and then conclude that three “ecological” voices (a “diminutive world,” “radical demographic shirts,” and “different faiths”) “…announce the end of one era and the beginning of a new one” for the Church (96-103)? Setting aside the disputable nature of this conclusion, it does not reflect a synchronic application of the Psalter and actually replaces the lord of historical-criticism with the king of cultural- or social-criticism. Moreover, Parrish speaks routinely of events such as the monarchy (it defines the discussion of the book) and the Exile (chapter 4) helping to shape the production of particular Psalms specifically and the arrangement of the Psalter generally. The only real “synchronic” moment in the book is his use of “congregation” to define both the ancient Israelite worship and the modern Church community (compare 42-46 with 71).

He is equally loose with his definition of “canon.” For instance, in his discussion of Psalm 74 Parrish states, “It is nothing short of an appeal to Israel’s canonical memory, to ancient life-giving and sustaining traditions” (85—italics mine). Are we to believe that a canon had been established at this time? Parrish probably means “Scriptural” or “religiously authoritative” (cf. John Barton’s distinction between canon and Scripture in Oracles of God; some interaction with Jon Levenson on this point would also be beneficial). A more precise definition of canon is certainly called for from a project that predicates many of its observations on a “canonical context.” Nonetheless, Parrish’s attempt to view the canon as authoritative for the modern Protestant Church is admirable (what Parrish might make of the Catholic or Orthodox “canon” is another matter). I think he runs into particular problems in terms of the sense of “tradition” implicit in his view of congregation. His charts demonstrating the relationship between “canon,” “culture,” and “ecology” (read: Scripture, modern context, specific Church community; cf. 44 and 46) assume that the Church community and the modern cultural context influence our understanding of canon, our views of doctrine (see especially his diatribe on the terms “omnipresence,” “omniscience,” and “omnipotence” on 91), and the ways in which we understand the “congregation of God.” This implies a “tradition” not unlike that espoused by Reform Judaism, which holds doctrinal and biblical precedents in tension with contemporary culture and expression (cf. the “Pittsburgh Platform” of Reform Judaism).

I also have a few objections to the book’s general argument. Parrish attempts to argue two points. The first is that this “story” of the Psalter, namely, emergence, establishment, collapse, and reemergence, is reflected too in the life of the Church (16-17; 136-137). This thesis relies heavily on Loren Mead’s “Christian Paradigm” but two paradigms (views of history?) are only summarily related and the project needs a more sustained comparison of the ancient Israelite view of history in the Psalter and that espoused by the New Testament writers (and early Church?). The second general point is that the individual “voices” that constitute the Psalter can be didactic tools for modern congregational living. Parrish presenta these voices within the Psalter, which are often seen as “competing” (compare “voices of advocacy” 52ff with “voices of protest” 62ff), as both evidence of corresponding moments between the Psalter and the history of the Church (as in Mead’s paradigm, although no evidence from the New Testament or early Church is given; cf. 74-77) and indications of how modern congregations should engage in the act of being Christian. Yet the overlap between the two propositions is difficult to see and their juxtaposition strains the logical pattern of the book.

Finally, there are two related disagreements. First, Parrish deals directly with only 33 of the 150 chapters of the Psalter in his book (see index). Given his “canonical” approach to the Psalter, it would certainly be worthwhile to place these 33 Psalms in the wider context of the other 117. Secondly, Parrish rarely speaks of the New Testament or Christian theology in his critique of specific Psalms. This seems an acute oversight given his desire to relate the Psalter to both the life of the Christian Church in general and the modern Christian congregation specifically, i.e., canonically (as Levenson has pointed out in The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism, 37-38, one does Christian theology with both testaments and not a Christian theology of the Old Testament). Parrish speaks of “cognitive dissonance” in which the Davidic monarchy is promised but not realized (123-128; cf. Ps. 120-134), but does not coordinate this with the Church’s claim of God’s universal sovereignty (Kingdom of God in Christ, a son of David; cf. the genealogical tables in the Synoptics and e.g., Matt. 3:2; 6:9ff, 10:7). In particular, there is no discussion of the Incarnation. This seems an essential point given his consistent comparison between the pattern in the Psalter and that of the Church as well as his insistence on a “canonical” reading of the Psalter. Christian existentialism posits a present reality to the Psalter’s future hope, namely the realization of the kingdom of God through the Advent of Christ.

In short, Parrish’s critical framework is actually “North American, Protestant congregational-context criticism” and not a canon-criticism. This is actually one of the book’s strengths: it continually attempts to view the text of the “Old Testament” through the prism of Church experience and to allow the text to influence Church praxis. I do not think that Parrish ultimately accomplishes this objective, but he is successful in highlighting the on-going need for Christians to re-engage with this testament.

Parrish’s work has several serious shortcomings. It is a social-scientific composition intent on presenting a novel way of expressing the character of the Psalter to local congregations. But his observations often get lost in that impulse and it becomes difficult to see the cohesion between the book of the Psalms and the need for a community to act with “…restrained speech and passionate listening” (76). In the final analysis I do not think that he has offered a commendable reading of the Psalter. Having said this, he does present some interesting challenges to the modern, Christian congregation of North America. His study, which ultimately advocates a variety of critical approaches and reaches many different conclusions, displays characteristics of post-modernity at its most eclectic.

B. J. Embry
Durham University